This week we began studying Ezekiel chapter 1 (starting here), and so far in verses 1-4 we have learned that Ezekiel was part of a group of 10,000 Jews that were exiled from the city of Jerusalem to Babylon. After five years of living there, on the banks of the Kebar River, Ezekiel sees an ominous storm cloud.
In Ezekiel chapter 1, verses 5-14, we read that Ezekiel sees, bursting out of the storm, four living creatures, and they are bizarre to say the least. Each creature, though humanoid in form, has heads with four faces, three of which are animals. Each creature also has two sets of wings. Notice in verse 13 where Ezekiel tells us the creatures are glowing like burning coals or torches. Not only that but fire moves between them, and lightning flashes out of the fire. Finally, the creatures are moving fast, back forth like lighting.
There is a precedent for these creatures, especially when you consider their wings. They resemble the wings of the cherubim that were on the Ark of Covenant in the temple of God. The Ark of the Covenant was basically a fancy box that held (see Hebrews 9:4) the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16), a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33-34), and Aaron’s staff (Numbers 17:10). It was kept in the most holy place of the temple in Jerusalem. On its lid were angels, called cherubim, that had wings a lot like the wings of the four living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision. But the four living creatures in Ezekiel were much more complex, with four wings each, whereas the cherubim on the Ark only had two wings.
What are we to make of this vision so far? On one hand, it would be amazing to see. I looked up a couple videos on YouTube to see how artists rendered it. When you read the vision, what do you picture in your mind? It’s really wild, right? How would you draw it? There were lots of options on YouTube, and I have no idea if any of them are even close. The vision is glaring with bright light, moving so fast, that it is hard to know what Ezekiel saw.
Furthermore, we would do well to remember that prophecy is often highly symbolic. In a vision a prophet might see one thing that means something else. This is why prophecy can be daunting. We don’t want to understand it incorrectly, but it is very easy to misunderstand. I think this is why we often avoid it. As we dive into Ezekiel, I cannot guarantee that I am going to interpret it right. But I’ll certainly try!
Let’s look at some options for understanding what symbolism might be present in the four living creatures. First, there are four of them. This could represent the four corners of the earth, which of course does not have any corners. But in the ancient world the idea of the four corners of the earth referred to “everywhere on earth.” Symbolically, then, that can refer to completeness. Why completeness? Perhaps that what God is trying to communicate through this vision will have world-wide, or complete, significance.
Second, the creatures themselves are also likely symbolic. The four animals of the four faces of each creature likely refer to the apex of four categories of animals. Humans are the rulers of all creation. Lions are the king of the beasts. Oxen are the strongest of the domesticated animals, and eagles are the rulers of the skies. So there is great strength and power represented in these creatures. Whatever the vision is trying to communicate, it will indicate great power and strength.
Third, look at verse 12, where we read that the living creatures follow “the spirit.” In Hebrew the word “spirit” literally means “wind” or “breathe,” but it is also used for the Spirit of God. Therefore, it really seems the idea Ezekiel wants us to understand is that these four creatures are following the Spirit of God.
I imagine Ezekiel is watching this vision dumbstruck. Things are about to get even more wild. Check back to tomorrow’s post to find out how.